Album review: Florence and the Machine


WINNING a Brit Award six months before you have released your debut album sets up hefty expectations. But Florence Welch, recipient of this year's Critics' Choice trophy, is a fearless lass with a massive voice, a whole armoury of top-flight producers du jour – James Ford, Paul Epworth and Pulp's Steve Mackey – and all the glossy photo shoots money can buy at her disposal. She's got a budget and, boy, has she used it.

Lungs is a far cry from Welch's roots in the south London squat party scene and her early punky gigs where she would accompany herself haphazardly on drums. It is an overwhelming debut, featuring an army of multi-tracked Florences coming at you with hair flailing and all guns blazing. And a harp.

Welch freely admits that subtlety plays no part on her debut. She is influenced by the gothic and the gruesome, is ruled by her emotions and is perfectly happy to put it all out there. Her lyrical imagery is over-the-top and primal, with a particular predilection for body parts – eyes, skull, spine, ribs all feature, along with her two key organs, the lungs and heart. The former signifies her voice, the latter is represented by the beat of her beloved drums. She is pictured on the striking cover with a pair of leather lungs strung around her neck.

Our first exposure to those mighty bellows is the euphoric Dog Days Are Over. Welch keeps it small and intimate to start with – a tantalising patchwork of ukulele, handclaps, drums and tambourine – before unleashing the beast. Her voice is an exhilarating tonic among the soup of post-Winehouse throwbacks, packing that foghorn power of Siouxsie Sioux. However, the track is more of a rallying cry than a song, with bountiful open-throated singalong potential. The first indication that emotions will be bandied about with profligacy comes with the opening line where happiness comes "like a train on a track".

The single Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up), written after her record company requested something "upbeat" for the album, is another lusty epic. Again, she reins in the vocals until she reaches the soaring, Amazonian chorus, where she sounds like a shock-and-awe version of her musical hero Kate Bush, even dropping a reference – "I must become a lion-hearted girl" – as she sings about girding herself for the coming emotional battle. Natasha "Bat For Lashes" Khan wouldn't stand a chance in a duel of the Bush-loving babes.

There are further echoes of Bush's anthemic chants on Drumming Song and Cosmic Love, with their beefy toms and tribal backing vocals, plus a touch of Arcade Fire intensity in the latter's musical scope.

During the recording of Howl, she made like a werewolf and had a moon projected on the studio wall to get into character. There is nothing too deranged in its slick electro pop chorus, though the visceral lyrics suggest that Welch's heart is an obsessive hunter.

There is more emotional carnage in Kiss With A Fist, her debut single from last year, as she proclaims herself ready to face the slings and arrows of a love affair with the confrontational assertion that "a kick in the teeth is good for some, a kiss with a fist is better than none". This blues punk garage number in the lo-fi style of The White Stripes is quite different from the manicured dementia of the rest of the album. Girl With One Eye, a swaggering, cautionary tale of vengeance, is the only other remnant of her earlier incarnation.

By this point, enough blood has been spilled in the name of love. Welch exposes her softer side on the undulating, ethereal piano ballad I'm Not Calling You A Liar, though she's declaiming about love, fear and anger by the end. My Boy Builds Coffins takes a more darkly comic approach with its sinister kiss-off: "One of these days he'll make one for you".

But she is also capable of moments of tender poetry, such as Between Two Lungs' depiction of a kiss: "Between two lungs it was released, the breath that captured me, the sigh that blew me forward".

Ultimately, though, Welch prefers to paint using extravagant, dramatic brushstrokes, so it's best to just allow her musical tidal wave to come crashing down around you. The aptly titled Hurricane Drunk, for example, announces her intention to embark on a Herculean exercise in drowning her sorrows. "I'm in the grip of a hurricane… I'm going out, I'm going to drink myself to death," she hollers. And, for once, the tune wins out in the fight for supremacy.

Finally, as a bonus, Welch rolls out her party piece – a cover of Candi Staton's towering You Got The Love – and proves, once and for all, that she's got the lungs.


Ivor Cutler Tribute Night

Oran Mor, Glasgow, 8 July

All roads lead to T in the Park this week, but try this for something completely different… BMX Bandit Duglas T Stewart, Dumb Instrument, Mike & Solveig and others pay tribute to the late deadpan bard with a worldview like none other in affectionate and no doubt suitably quirky style.

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